Boxee hopes to be everything to everyone in TV and goes a long way. (January 15th, 2011)
Digital media hubs have almost invariably fallen into two camps: the polished, commercial but limited universe of a device like the Apple TV or else the free-wheeling and flexible, but often bootleg-focused, hubs such as the Popcorn Hour. Boxee in its big push into the living room is aiming for both: it wants to give access to legitimate content while still having the leeway to play every format someone might encounter. But how well does it bridge that gap? We'll discover that in our Boxee Box review.
Product Manufacturer: Boxee and D-Link
Price: $200 (street)
- Excellent remote.
- Iconic design.
- Easy filtering and discovery of web TV and movies.
- 1080p video with Dolby and DTS audio.
- Very broad format and media sharing support.
- Third-party apps.
- SD card slot and USB ports.
- Boxee remote app.
- Hulu, Netflix, Vudu coming.
- Web video sometimes doesn't work properly.
- Limited range of top tier content.
- Doesn't play major protected video formats.
- Expensive for a cloud-only hub.
- Inconsistent interface at times.
- Netflix et. al. not yet here.
Design, ports and the Boxee remote
Most home theater hardware design is stubbornly practical. Not so the Boxee Box: its sunken cube shape is almost a taunt to ergonomics. As such, it's not going to integrate very smoothly with an existing stack of Blu-ray players or receivers except at the very top. You're better off with the Iomega TV if you want Boxee in a flat package. If you can afford the space to set it on your TV stand, however, it has a decided appeal as a conversation starter. It's hard to be entirely mad at a design that's iconic in a world of very uniform shapes.
It also makes a point of being relatively unintrusive. While it uses an Atom chip and needs active cooling versus the fanless Apple TV, it's only audible if there's no audio playing and if you're relatively close. The light is another matter; the distinctive green Boxee logo lights up on one side whenever it's on, so it has to be position strategically not to distract viewers in the middle of a movie. A cube shape and the lack of optical drives comes in handy here, since it can be rotated away without much hurting access to other ports..
That expansion is also fairly broad compared to some of its competitors. You won't quite find the kitchen sink strategy, but you will have many more options than on the minimalist Apple TV. Besides the requisite HDMI, Ethernet and Wi-Fi, there's also optical and RCA for audio out. There's no local storage -- a definite setback for a $200 box -- but it does have two USB ports and an SDHC card slot to load your own media, both of which can be very handy in the event you're either knocked offline or simply want to share what you have from a camera.
Perhaps the cleverest part of the entire Boxee experience is the remote. The top includes just a directional pad, a play/pause button, and a menu button. Flip it over, however, and you're faced with a full QWERTY keyboard. It's an exercise in design simplicity yet one which still manages to offer much more freedom than a typical remote; while it's not as responsive as a mouse, we never felt like we had to reach for a second controller. There's a sweet spot here between the intuitive but overly limited Apple TV remote and the behemoth mouse and trackpad controllers needed for Google TV.
The remote feels comfortable in the hand and is surprisingly trouble-free. Buttons and keys respond with a fairly satisfying click. Typing isn't extremely rapid but is quick enough that you're not as frustrated. We didn't have any accidental key presses on one side while using the other. The directional pad and navigation buttons are replicated on the back side, too, keeping you from having to flip back and forth.
Some notable hiccups still occur. There's no physical guides to help you tell which way is right side up on the keyboard, and we caught ourselves sometimes looking at an upside-down keyboard. Boxee hasn't rolled in any illumination, either, so you may find yourself fumbling in dim light. And as much as we appreciate the simplicity, there's no shortcut buttons for common tasks, such as putting the Boxee Box to sleep or browsing local media. We don't want the nightmare of a typical TV remote, and certainly not the awkwardness of Sony's Internet TV remote, but a little more might do this hub some good.
Getting started and the main interface
Setting up a Boxee Box, on its most basic level, is relatively easy, certainly compared to the sometimes obtuse process of a Google TV. The majority includes simple things such as correcting for overscan or connecting online. You will want a Boxee account, however. The most unique twist is prioritization. Near the end of setup, you can focus the interface either primarily on Internet video or primarily on your local content; the interface prioritizes itself accordingly, which is a nice touch.
Our own experience was somewhat odd: despite having a known working Wi-Fi setup with a good password, the Boxee refused to connect. We ended up just connecting to Ethernet to solve the problem. Thankfully, it connected online without a hitch after that. Your results are likely to vary on wireless, especially as we have a relatively complicated setup to work with.
Once in, you're greeted with an interface that's surprisingly simple -- almost too simple, at times. The home screen provides quick access to the main categories as well as a ticker showing some of the most popular and highlighted content online. Most navigation is conducted through a pop-up top bar that usually shows whenever you hit the menu button (more on this later). There, you can both drill down into specific categories, such as browsing all photos or viewing the most popular movies. Handily, there's a user-configurable (if basic) weather widget.
The search box is at once the best part of this interface as well as potentially the most confusing. It will find virtually any content the Boxee Box can index, including both local and Internet media, but it's also used to launch directly into some tasks: going to a specific website address or finding a particular YouTube video requires going here rather than launching an app. In fact, there's no plain YouTube app; YouTube Leanback exists, but to use the regular player you have to search for what you want. It's convenient if you have a curious mind but also somewhat annoying, especially as there's no easy way to check a YouTube subscription.
Most navigation is simple, and settings are surprisingly powerful without being overly complex. There are occasional settings where you'll need deep knowledge to use them, but we didn't find them essential for a good experience. We did, however, have an issue with interface consistency. When we said the menu button usually brought up the pop-up bar, there are a few situations in which it won't. Running an app, playing music or even digging into some browsing will change the role from the pop-up bar to going back one level, and until you've been extensively trained you'll find yourself accidentally exiting one screen and having to dig back in.
Media viewing: the web
By far the most important part of the Boxee Box is its web side: it has a full WebKit-based browser with both Flash and HTML5 support, so virtually any website you can visit on the desktop should look the same here. More importantly, it's not only available by itself but as the player for most Internet-based content. It can kick into a full-screen mode with a shortcut in the menus and has optimized text entry along with other things you'd expect from a 10-foot interface, although we wish its default view filled the TV screen instead of fitting the page width first; only those with large TVs can read the cropped 4:3 text on some web pages.
You won't spend much time in the raw browser mode in practice. Boxee is unique in scraping a fairly large range of the most popular web video sites for a given country and developing an optimized interface for jumping into those videos with as little involvement in the pure web as possible. It's surprisingly easy to navigate based on show artwork and metadata. The interface is even unique in presenting a choice of destinations if one exists. Some sites (such as Hulu's free version) are blocked in an attempt to artificially prop up cable and satellite TV businesses, but that's not Boxee's fault and not necessarily a problem in our experience.
Actually watching that video is a mixed bag. At its best, it's near seamless: high-quality web video (up to 1080p) with little extra remote control use once you've hit "play." Video quality is dependent on the source, so a low-resolution video on the web won't look good blown up to HDTV size, but anything 480p or larger will look good. There are very few 1080p web sources, the maximum Boxee supports, but virtually anything HD performs as smoothly and looks as good as you'd expect. Media controls work as they do for offline content and can often be treated the same way..
It's here, though, that some of the limitations of relying on the generic web instead of a direct source or optimized site become obvious. Keeping a continuous, full-screen image is a challenge. When we watched Conan or The Daily Show, for example, it would start out in a regular page and require that we use the full-screen toggle. The full-screen video would also 'break' in between segments when Flash ads appeared, forcing us to jump out of and back into full-screen to make it work again. Other shows didn't properly give the Boxee Box a full-screen shortcut and made us navigate to the Flash video's own controls for it by hand, which can take a long time without a mouse or trackpad.
The experience was tolerable for us as many media hubs couldn't even get that far, but we wouldn't consider it a real living room experience for most: try explaining to your parents that they'd need to watch their favorite TV show by hitting a series of button shortcuts at every ad break. And again, your'e somewhat at the mercy of content providers' attitudes towards web video as the future. The selection of TV shows is often professional, but Hulu and certain networks won't let you watch even if you could see the ads they normally show.
Movies are considerably more disappointing. There's a large number of independent movies that might be intriguing on a rainy day, but nothing so far that would be a device seller; you'll need to have an account with a paid video service with Flash support to get top tier movies. That could change soon. As of this writing, Boxee was just days away from offering Netflix and Vudu as native apps and still had Hulu Plus on the roadmap. Without these, though, an alternative like the Apple TV or an Xbox 360 has considerably more.
Local movies, music and photos
Of course, most of the worries about content restrictions and interface hiccups tend to melt with content you own yourself. It's here where the Boxee Box's hardware gets to shine. The company's stated goal is to guarantee that most any audio, photo or video format will load, and we're inclined to believe it: along with standard formats from across the spectrum, it can handle your ripped DVD collection as well as Matroska (MKV) video containers using any number of native codecs. It even supports five different subtitling formats and, if you have the speakers, DTS or Dolby TrueHD surround sound. About the only limitations are that it won't recognize any RAW photo formats like DNG or NEF.
While polished, there's a definite "wink and a nudge" nature to the support that makes it clear this is as much to accommodate frequent BitTorrent users as it is the family vacation video. We don't have an issue ourselves; once you have it, you might as well have device support for it. What you won't find is support for copy protected media outside of Flash. Those with extensive iTunes or Zune Marketplace video collections just won't be served here. Again, it's not really something Boxee can control, but it's something to consider if you live in an Apple- or Microsoft-heavy environment.
If it's physically loaded on the Boxee, such as through an SD card or a USB hard drive, browsing is simple. Content is again parsed and filtered, but there's files section for those who prefer to navigate by raw folders. Network file sharers will like the sheer amount of auto-discovery protocols that are onboard: it can find DLNA, Samba and UPnP shared content, among others, and has the option of setting certain locations as favorites. How easy it is to reach a given host depends on the choices of platform, however. Pulling media from a Mac was comparatively easy as long as it was in a publicly shared folder. Sharing from other locations or from a Windows PC often required a specialized app such as Tversity or Vuze. Navigating these was easy, although we'd advise against sharing one large folder. Scanning thousands of files at once can bog down the interface for long stretches of time.
Photo and video browsing is simple enough. We would prefer that Boxee had a more advanced music app. As smart enough as it is to recognize music and offer options like shuffling and loading playlists, the app won't quite be a substitute for iTunes or WinAmp. There's no great choice for Internet radio, either, which we consider a selling point for the Apple TV as a house party jukebox.
Like some of its peers, the Boxee Box can be extended with apps that present content, including text, in a more TV-friendly format. Separate categories exist for audio, news, video and other common functions. How well these work can depend on the skill of the app developer, but as a general rule we found they were very polished and accessible. Some of them can be pains. Flickr, for example, needs you to jump to a web browser and give permission before you can load it up.
As with the movie portal, app selection often tends to skew towards independents rather than major apps or providers, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. Despite Apple's Steve Jobs having dismissed this sort of portal as "amateur hour," it can be extremely enjoyable to dive in since many of the top Internet-only providers have their own Boxee apps. Gamers might enjoy watching previews from Giant Bomb, for example, and professional podcast networks like Revision3 (Diggnation, Tekzilla) and TWiT (This Week in Tech, Tech News Today) serve up their entire catalogs. If you're not strictly limited to traditional media, you may love the available titles, although we had one app crash (once) on us.
Having said this, there are instances of anemic picks. The audio section doesn't have Live365 or other Internet radio sources you'd care about, for example. We'd also like to see some gaming and a wider selection of non-media titles as a whole. Still, if you're willing to wager that Boxee's app library will grow in the months to come, it could be worth the investment. As we mentioned earlier, Hulu Plus, Netflix and Vudu should all be available before long and could make the app section very compelling.
Friends, Watch Later and the Boxee Remote app
We'd be remiss if we didn't talk about a pair of ways to filter content. Friends, at its heart, amounts to a simple way of seeing what your online contacts have been watcing and consider noteworthy. Unfortunately, Boxee's relative newness and enthusiast base makes it hard to test this: we hardly had anyone to track.
Watch Later is more intriguing and decidedly helpful if you live for web video. Both through the Boxee Box and through an optional bookmarklet, you can flag web videos on another platform and watch as they show up in a dedicated list. While it doesn't completely make up for the lack of advanced controls for YouTube and other sites, it can be a savior if you find a great clip on the road and want to see it back home.
Just like the Apple TV, Boxee does have a remote app (free, App Store) if you would prefer to use your iPhone or iPod touch to steer the device. It works well enough and is very convenient if you don't care for the official remote. Ironically, Boxee's attention to detail with its dedicated controller works against the app; there's not much incentive to use the iOS software when the physical remote is in view and usually faster.
Boxee comes across as a plucky startup eager to get Internet TV 'right' and to bring fresh thinking to a category where even Apple at times is conservative. In many ways, Boxee achieves what it set out to do. Along with a pleasing overall look, it has taken much of the pain out of finding and playing web video, in some cases as much as it possibly could. And the hardware remote is a stroke of minor genius, making it easy to stick to one controller through the entire experience.
It becomes harder to recommend in terms of polish. Partly due to the intensely varied nature of Internet video, a lot of the content you want to see isn't just pick-up-and-play. Until TV providers accept the seeming inevitability of a shift towards Internet video, what you can choose from will be limited or won't work elegantly. Boxee's role as an outsider also leaves it without support for as much official content as it should have to get casual users onboard. Right now, get the Boxee Box only if you're reasonably tech-aware and willing to put up with quirks to get more features.
Price may also be an obstacle as a result of that imperfection. At $200 on the street and as much as $230 officially, that's a lot to pay for a media hub without any built-in storage or clearly important extra features such as on a game console. Both Apple and Roku can charge under $100 for HD-capable media players that already have access to established media sources such as iTunes, MLB, Netflix and others. Boxee is aware of this and has been looking at deals to drop the price, but there's no guarantee it will happen with this first hardware generation.
Yet as much might need to get better, we have a hard time giving the Boxee anything less than three and a half stars both for what it can do and what it should do in the future. Of all the companies working on developing a wide-ranging digital media hub, Boxee has come closest to getting what people want: an easy to use, multi-talented device whose goal is to digest media wherever it comes from. Once the range of deals with Hulu, Netflix and others come in, it could well be the ultimate solution short of a home theater PC. For now, at least, it's the yin to Apple's yang: what it lacks in paid media it makes up for in free media, and that's all some might need to hear.